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The often overlooked Brent Rooker gets a chance

First round picks typically come with more hype and inflated expectations

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Minnesota Twins v St Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Since the Twins non-tendered long time left fielder Eddie Rosario back in December, our collective expectation was that top prospect Alex Kirilloff was the heir apparent in left. Heading into Spring Training a lot of us assumed the role was Kirilloff’s to lose.

But that’s not what happened. Kirilloff was optioned to the alternate training site to begin the season. It’s not precisely clear what the true motivations behind optioning Kirilloff were. The team has said it was a “baseball move” based on his spring performance (4-31) and limited experience above Double-A. Others credibly interpret this decision as the franchise manipulating Kirilloff’s service time in order to gain an extra season of team control before he is eligible for free agency. Whatever the reason, the decision quickly (and rightly) created some second guessing among the fanbase and in the Twins blogosphere.

A few days after that decision went public, the Twins finalized their Opening Day roster. I was struck by the comparatively muted reaction of another highly regarded, bat first, corner position prospect — Brent Rooker — being left off the roster. The lack of outcry about that choice made me think he is being overlooked, by the Twins and by us.

Brent Rooker Profile

With the bat, Rooker’s resume is about as good as it gets as far as amateur and minor league achievement go. In 2017, Rooker was the second draft choice (after #1 overall choice Royce Lewis) of the Falvey and Levine regime. Rooker led his Mississippi State club to an SEC title as a redshirt sophomore, hitting .324/.376/.578 with 11 home runs and 54 RBIs. That summer he was a Cape Cod League All-Star.

The next spring, he was the Collegiate National Player of the Year, and SEC Player of the Year, when he won just the second triple crown in SEC history by posting a .387 / .495 / .810 line, 23 homers, and 82 RBIs. Based on that performance against some of the best competition the amateur level has to offer, the Twins selected Rooker 35th overall in the 2017 draft and signed him with a $1.935M bonus.

In three plus minor league seasons since joining the Twins organization, all Rooker has done is hit, a claim that is evidenced by a combined .267 / .357 / . 505 line with 54 homers in 259 games and 1,110 plate appearances across four different minor league levels. That includes a very successful 65 game stint with AAA-Rochester in 2019 where he batted .281 / .398 / .535 and hit 14 homers.

Over the course of his time as a minor league prospect, Rooker has routinely been assessed as one of the Twins’ top 10 or so prospects (currently ranked #13 per MLB Pipeline, and #7 by all of us here at Twinkie Town) and he even snuck onto the back end (#92) of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list before the 2018 season.

Rooker debuted with Minnesota in 2020, with a successful 7 game stint (7 for 19, 1 homer, 5 RBI) that ended prematurely when he was hit by a pitch that broke his forearm by Cleveland’s Zach Plesac. Before that, though, it looked like he was going to do a lot of this:

Despite that success and those accolades, Rooker seems to have flown a bit under the radar. It is curious that a player with that pedigree has become somewhat of an afterthought in Twins circles. It also speaks to the upper echelon quality of some of the other players in the system.

In hindsight, given his track record and immediate MLB success last year, perhaps the left field competition this spring should have been framed as a battle of first rounders vying for the role. After all, if Rooker had not been injured and out for the season last fall, it’s unlikely that Kirilloff would have made his debut in the playoffs. In most other years, without someone like Kirilloff around in Spring Training, Rooker’s attempt to crack a roster spot (and perhaps win a regular job) probably would have been one of the leading Spring story lines. Why wasn’t there more public disagreement with the decision to option Rooker?

Twins Recent 1st Round Track Record

Part of the answer to question is that the consensus view is that Rooker is not in the same class of prospect as Kirilloff (or Trevor Larnach, for that matter). True as that may be, it’s difficult to remember another Twins first round pick (including supplemental and compensation selections) coming to the big leagues with so little hype and expectation. It’s also been quite awhile since one of the Twins high draft choices has made their debut while still considered a top prospect.

The franchise made 29 first round draft choices between 2000 and 2015, a year that provides a reasonable enough cut point to give all those prospects an opportunity to make it to the Majors by now. Most (19) of those 29 failed to play a meaningful role at the major league level for Minnesota and almost half (13) failed to reach the majors at all.

Twins 1st Round Picks 2000-2015

Year Pick # Name Position fWAR with Twins
Year Pick # Name Position fWAR with Twins
2000 2 Adam Johnson RHP -0.5
2000 31* Aaron Heilman RHP Did Not Sign
2001 1 Joe Mauer C 52.5
2002 20 Denard Span OF 15.1
2003 21 Matt Moses 3B AAA
2004 20 Trevor Plouffe SS 6.1
2004 22 Glen Perkins LHP 7.7
2004 25 Kyle Waldrop RHP -0.3
2004 35* Matt Fox RHP 0.1
2004 39* Jay Rainville RHP AA
2005 25 Matt Garza RHP 1.7
2005 39* Henry Sanchez 1B A
2006 20 Chris Parmelee 1B 0.8
2007 28 Ben Revere OF 3.4
2008 14 Aaron Hicks OF 2.5
2008 27 Carlos Gutierrez RHP AAA
2008 31* Shooter Hunt RHP A
2009 22 Kyle Gibson RHP 12.9
2009 46* Matt Bashore LHP A
2010 21 Alex Wimmers RHP -0.2
2011 30 Levi Michael SS AAA
2011 50* Travis Harrison 3B AA
2011 55* Hudson Boyd RHP A
2012 2 Byron Buxton OF 8.7
2012 32* Jose Berrios RHP 10.9
2012 42* Luke Bard RHP AAA
2013 4 Kohl Stewart RHP 0.2
2014 5 Nick Gordon SS AAA
2015 6 Tyler Jay LHP AA
* Supplemental Selection

The list that did reach the majors and have any reasonable amount of success is short (7) and consists only of Joe Mauer, Denard Span, Trevor Plouffe, Glen Perkins, Kyle Gibson, Byron Buxton, and José Berríos. Three more — Matt Garza, Ben Revere, and Aaron Hicks — could also be included among that group, but were traded early in their Twins tenure, with decidedly mixed results on those transactions for Minnesota.

Buxton (2015 debut) and Berríos (2016) remain the last first round draft choices to debut amid significant fanfare. Kohl Stewart debuted in 2018, but by that point was far removed from his top prospect days. In addition, the jury is still out on 2014 first rounder Nick Gordon, who has yet to debut with the Twins but is currently on the 40 man roster. It seems likely his ceiling will be as a backup or utility infielder, if he ever breaks through.

Given that backdrop, Rooker’s success last year and almost making the team out of Spring Training this year are causes enough for celebration.

A Sign of Things to Come

Looking back now, it’s easy to see that Rooker and his specific kind of skill set are emblematic of the philosophy Falvey and Levine have instilled in the organization.

Power bats, often coming with significant defensive question marks, and often coming from the college ranks, have been the archetype the Twins have prioritized at the top of drafts since 2017. The year after Rooker was taken, the Twins selected Oregon State outfielder Larnach in the first round. In 2019, Southern Mississippi outfielder Matt Wallner was their selection in the first competitive balance round. They went to the same bat first, college prospect well with North Carolina first baseman Aaron Sabato in the first round last summer.

Rooker’s Outlook

Most public prospect evaluators believe his best case scenario in the field is becoming just an adequate defensive outfielder. It may be more likely that he ends up a first baseman or perhaps just a designated hitter. You can be sure, any prospect whose MLB Pipeline scouting report includes the quote “his best defensive position remains the batter’s box,” as Rooker’s does, clearly comes with defensive concerns. Whatever the ultimate role, to balance out his shortcomings with the glove, he will have to hit.

The evaluators suggest that he’s power over hit prospect that mashes fastballs, with much higher grades put on his power (60 or 65, depending on source) than on his hit tool (ranges from 35 to 45). He’s likely to hit for power, but it’s less certain he’ll make enough contact to get to all that power because of lingering concerns about his ability to recognize breaking balls.

On the positive side, Rooker showed little in the way of discernible platoon splits in the minor leagues (he actually had reverse splits in small-ish samples in AA and AAA, hitting right handed pitching better than left handed), but he figures to see a lot of right handed sliders in the majors. How well he adapts his approach to counter and lay off those breaking balls (and keep his strikeouts down) will likely determine if he can be an everyday kind of player, or a platoon option better suited for spot duty against left handed pitching.

Whatever his ultimate role turns out to be, a confluence of factors has served to suppress the expectations for Rooker. The presence of higher regarded prospects at similar positions are a big one. Being a member of the typically poorly regarded right-handed swinging, right-handed throwing, lumbering corner defender club is another. Being 26 years old is another. The question about the hit tool, still another. He’s far from a perfect prospect — but few are. Altogether, these all are the kinds of things that potentially lead to a player being undervalued, overlooked, and/or made to wait a little longer to get their opportunities. Sometimes, those kinds of players take those opportunities and run with them. Sometimes, they don’t.

With the news that Rooker has been recalled to the Twins to fill out the roster while Josh Donaldson recovers from a hamstring injury, it seems he might get an early chance in 2021 to force us all to look. I’ll be interested to see what he does with it.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.